Sometimes I feel blessed. Not just blessed, but blessed-blessed. In addition to the blessed of daily life which is more than blessed enough, I have the extra blessing of being able to walk out of the house, hop in the car and go see ancient mosaics almost on my door step including the early Christian mosaics of Dephi. Now, really, how blessed is that?
Here in Athens there are Byzantine churches with gloomy interiors and glittering mosaics within easy access, Corinth is a mere hour a way, it’s hard to enter a museum without encountering mosaics and even long boring journeys can yield unexpected delights of the mosaic variety. I don’t like to gloat but sometimes it’s hard not to feel that when the Gods were distributing their gifts they dropped an extra mosaic-shaped sackful just for me.
That’s exactly how I felt the day I went to see the mosaics of Delphi with my friend Angie. She was keen to revisit the ruins and I wanted to see the extensive mosaic floor which originally came from a late 5th, early 6th century church in the village of Delphi nearby but is now to be found outside the site’s archeological museum. I had seen it before on a family trip when small children, an elderly mother in law and a fierce sun had deterred us from lingering and this time I was intent on savouring it.
So, prodded by Angie, I siddled up to the woman in the ticket booth at the entrance to the site and asked whether there was any chance I could be allowed to get down to the level of the mosaic which is laid out on a terrace below the museum so that visitors can look over it from above. Very politely but in no uncertain terms, the woman refused. Angie, however, had no truck with this wishy washy British ‘would you mind awfully’ approach and marched up to the booth, explained that I was a mosaic maker and blogger and after a phone call and a bit of gentle pressure secured us permission to duck under the rope and go down the steps to see the mosaic up really, really close.
Assertiveness might not be on the list of blessings allotted to me but it’s a wonderful thing. This is what we would have seen (aided by a zoom lens) if it weren’t for Angie’s straight-talking:
Mosaics of Delphi from above
What we did see was quite different. From a distance one can hang over a low wall and look down on the mosaic, seeing it as it was never intended to be seen – as a complete whole, a vista of tessellated colours, braided borders and animal designs. Beautiful, yes, but not intimate, not personal, not, somehow, real. Before we were given permission to go down, Angie and I did as 21st century viewers are meant to do and leant together over the wall, pointing things out to each other and trying to work out certain features which were too far away to read. This wonderful sole fish, for example, from a distance was only visible as a strange unidentifiable shape :
But everything changed when we got down close to the mosaics of Delphi, down to the level of the ordinary people who would have worshipped there more than 1,500 years ago; the farmers and agricultural workers, the labourers, the tradesmen, travellers and soldiers, women stepping out of the sun holding the hands of their children, old people leaning against the walls, groups of friends jostling and nodding in greeting as the proceedings began. Gone were the heirarchies of the ancient temples set on high where only the rich or the initiated could hope to secure the intercession of the Gods. This was a holy place whioch was certainly made to impress but also to include:
Early Christian mosaics
Looking at this floor and others from the same period, it strikes me that there was a time in the history of church mosaics before their makers set out to use the medium of mosaics to strike awe and reverence in the hearts of the faithful and instead used them simply to decorate and delight, employing familiar, homely images from daily life. Consider the laden fruit trees from the 5th century basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, the birds and fountains from Stobi or the 6th century aquatic birds and a flower tucked under the belly of a deer from a Thessaloniki basilica:
Most of the mosaics of Delphi have the same unpretentious tone. The floor is divided into four distinct sections, the first of which is devoted to domestic and farm animals:
Take note of the cat – I am quite sure that that is a kitten in its mouth – look at the little legs, tense and bunched the way kittens’ legs do when their mothers carry them. It is, as far as I know, quite unique among Roman and Byzantine mosaics.
The second section, adjoining it, contains wild animals of various sorts. Some, like the wild boar and pole cat which still abound in Greece, were no doubt well known to the visitors but others, like the camel, would have been strange but clearly familiar if one can go by the acurracy of the representation whereas the zebra wearing a spripy jumper suggests it was talked about but never seen.
Both sections are interspersed with an astonishing variety of fish. Here are some but there are more, many more – as close as we were, I could only readily photograph the ones on or close to the edges of the mosaic:
The third main section of the mosaic is more ostentatiously grand. Positioned in the middle of the nave and perhaps under what would have been a central dome, there is a round central motif of a leopard gorging on a felled deer:
Other elements in this section include at least two peacocks – part of the mosaic is destroyed so perhaps there were more. The peacock, of course, was beloved by the Romans but is also a symbol of resurrection in early Christian/Byzantine imagery.
There are also two figures, perhaps representing the seasons – a common feature in earlier Roman mosaics – and three eagles with outstretched wings which are too similar to the Roman imperial eagles to be anything other than directly influenced by the military insignia.
The mosaic is a sort of physicial expression of the split in the Roman Empire. By the time it was made this part of the world would have been ruled from Constantinople making it technically a Bzyantine mosaic but understandably the Roman influences are still strong. The inclusion of the eagles and the hunting scene suggest to me that its benefactor might have had military connections and wanted to make a statement about his status and wealth.
The final section of the Delphi mosaic is the narthex panel which is made up of a grid pattern with each square containing different kinds of birds separated by a thick double stranded guilloche border. Here, again, the makers revert to a subject matter which would have been familiar to the most humble of worshippers: mallard, magpie, quail, partridge, pigeon and others.
Looking at the mosaics of Delphi, one can’t help but feel that the people who made them also had a sense of their blessings. Not that life wouldn’t have been tough, but admist the difficulties they wanted to show that God (since this is a church) had given us a natural world so beautiful, so rich, so downright astonishing that it deserved being represented and held in our attention so that the viewers would marvel and rejoice at the extraordinary ordinariness of the blessings that surrounded them.Further reading: http://mediterraneanworld.typepad.com/the_archaeology_of_the_me/2008/01/delphi-mosaics.html
Coming soon: Teach yourself mosaics: online classes and more.